NY Times Exposes More Google Spam

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The New York Times has another high profile article exposing how Google is broken.  The article notes that JC Penny ranked #1 in Google search results pages for numerous terms during the lucrative shopping season thanks mostly to numerous paid links.

Both the writer and Matt Cutts quickly lose sight of the real issue and veer off-track into the actions taken by Google after the fact. However, the real conclusions that should be made come from what was happening to Google’s results BEFORE someone (a high-profile someone) pointed it out to the company.  The data gathered in reporting how JC Penny scammed its way to the top of Google’s search results without anyone noticing is not so easily explained away.

How Google Search Spam Keeps Getting Worse

searchIt has been suggested by stock investors and analysts on Wall Street that Google as a company is a one-trick pony whose only ability is to make money from online advertising clicks.  Perhaps there should be more concern that Google is a one trick pony whose only ability is to count incoming links to webpages.

Google has a carefully constructed mythology in which it insists two core ideas are true.  First, that content is king and that quality content will naturally attract links and, by extension, that the best quality content will attract the most links.  Second, the company has webmaster guidelines, and unofficial company spokespersons, constantly reiterating that counting links is not all there is when it comes to ranking highly, and that those who engage in forbidden practices like buying links or link schemes will be detected and punished.

The Times article proves that neither of these things are true.

While investigating the mysterious #1 Google ranking for everything from dresses to area rugs it was noted that there were tons of incoming links with the same anchor text from websites all over the web.  Many of these links came from low-value, low PageRank webpages and websites.  In fact, many of them came from seemingly dormant webpages.  Most came from sites completely unrelated to the search terms that JC Penny was ranking #1 for.

Unfortunately, the article heads off course with the sensationalistic news that JC Penny was manually penalized for cheating Google’s rankings, or more officially sounding, "violating Google’s webmaster quality guidelines."  Google’s Cutts and other commentators have attempted to spin this as a lesson in what happens if you do naughty things like buying links or other black-hat SEO tactics.  Ironically, it actually proves the opposite.

Google Cannot Detect and Filter Spam or Black-Hat SEO

The article notes that JC Penny was able to rank #1 for all of these high-volume search terms for MONTHS, completely undetected by Google. It was only AFTER a journalist detected it and gathered up the evidence that Google MANUALLY adjusted the rankings to penalize JC Penny’s, who unlike smaller website will reap no long lasting penalty from Google because they are both too big to eliminate from the rankings and because they are blaming their SEO contractor for the issue.

In other words, if you cheat, lie, and steal your way to the #1 Google ranking without attracting the attention of a major journalist, you are going to be very successful for a very long time.

Here are the real lessons to be gleaned from the New York Times article.

  1. Black Hat SEO Works — Not only does it work, but it either takes a very long time to detect, or it cannot be detected at all.  JC Penny violated one of the "biggies" by buying links and no one noticed a thing until it was all over.
  2. Google’s "Hundreds" of ranking factors are a joke — Google goes out of its way to say that there are hundreds of factors that go into a ranking, and there probably are.  Unfortunately, none of those factors has anything near the weight of backlinks.  Google-bombs have shown this to be true for years.  All that really matters is that there are a lot of links with the right anchor text and any webpage will rank higher and higher for that term.
  3. Links are Links — Google always says that links from "related" pages are more valuable than links from unrelated pages.  This is either untrue, or the additional value is so insignificant that it affects nothing but tie-breakers between two equally linked webpages.  Most of the links Penny bought were on pages that have nothing to do with home goods or clothing and yet they were enough to propel them to the top of the SERPs for months during the holiday shopping season.
  4. Google’s Algorithm Is Flawed — In order to "fix" things, Google had to MANUALLY tweak its search results. In other words, the company’s vaunted algorithm would keep ranking Penny’s #1 for all of those terms without manual intervention.  That means that unless what you are doing ends up in the New York Times, chances are that no one will detect what you are doing and that even if they do nothing will happen.  Google can’t have an algorithm with hundreds of thousands of manual patches on it that have to be managed.

Link Counting Is Dead

The biggest lesson from the JC Penny search spam scam is that link counting is worthless.  It may have been true that links were earned in the past, but that is no longer the case.  Webmasters routinely link to their own stuff for the sole purpose of SEO.  Numerous website owners and publishers post articles anywhere and everywhere for the sole purpose of getting links to their websites.  Bloggers and others routinely exchange links in order to help each other out.

Perhaps most telling is the increasing number of websites that deliberately link without the primary keywords.  Technology websites writing about Norton Antivirus no longer link to the company using the anchor text Norton Antivirus because that will just boost another company’s website.  Rather, they link with the work Norton or with a unusable "click here" type of text.  Keep in mind that these websites no exactly what they are doing and they are deliberately withholding link value for their own benefit.

The day has come for Google to admit that counting links is no longer a meaningful way to rank websites.  While it may be useful as a lessor factor, it has no place in the mix as a primary ranking criteria.  The only reason Google continues to dominate search is that it has the best index of websites to pull from, not because it returns the best results from an equal index. 

As technology matures and indexing becomes less of a technical challenge, the company’s edge will diminish.  The only question is whether Google can figure out a new trick before that happens.

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